- The Washington Times - Monday, September 23, 2002

OYSTER, Va. (AP) A new $1.3 million campaign to help restore the marshy barrier islands off Virginia's Eastern Shore involves building oyster reefs, planting underwater grasses, fighting animals that ruin bird habitat, and expanding ecotourism.
The Virginia Seaside Heritage Program guarantees money from federal sources for three years of research and fieldwork. "Hopefully, it will create enough momentum on its own so these efforts continue for years to come," said Laura McKay, project coordinator with the state Department of Environmental Quality.
The barrier islands and their shallow bays and tidal canals on the Atlantic Ocean stretch about 70 miles from the Maryland border to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay near Virginia Beach.
Ecologically, the region hasn't fully recovered from a combination of storms and waterborne disease that struck in 1933, killing aquatic grass meadows that sheltered scallops, oysters and blue crabs seafood that once drove the local economy.
Today, most of the islands are owned and protected from development by the Nature Conservancy, an international environmental group.
To officials who attended a news briefing last week in the fishing village of Oyster, the program represents a long-overdue recognition of their rugged, remote and historically rich back yard.
"This is huge," said Barry Truitt, chief conservation scientist with the Nature Conservancy, who has managed and written about the islands for the past 26 years. "It's the first time the state and federal government have recognized the value of the seaside."
The Chesapeake Bay, just to the west, always seems to receive the bulk of political attention and environmental funding in Virginia, Mr. Truitt and others said.
Scientists say a key to restoring the seaside ecosystem is re-establishing its underwater grasses, which provide shelter for fish.
and crabs, keep sediment from washing over oyster reefs and breathe oxygen into inland shallows.
Bob Orth, a biologist with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, has been scattering grass seeds and planting vegetation in the area since 1998. He said the new program will allow him to expand his plantings to Cobb Island and Hog bays.
Artificial oyster reefs will be built near the replanted grass beds, said Jim Wesson, state director of oyster restoration. This method tends to help grow more oysters while re-establishing the natural mix of grasses and reefs, he said.
Officials expect to give rare birds such as the piping plover a better chance of recovery by initiating efforts to chase away raccoons and foxes, which steal bird eggs and wreck nests.
The seaside program also will develop a water trail for kayakers and canoeists, and expanded water-access points for ecotourists.


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